Hot Science: The Best New Science Culture

The past future on display, the Bruce Willis Improbability Index, and science events in October



Courtesy of the Edith Lutyevs and
Norman Bell Geddes Foundation/Harry Ransom Center

I Have Seen the Future
Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
If you’ve traveled on a bullet train, perched on a swooping modernist sofa, or made a martini in a sleek cocktail shaker, welcome to the future—just as Norman Bel Geddes imagined it. Bel Geddes, a 20th-century industrial designer, popularized the idea of a streamlined metropolis with his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–40 World’s Fair. Visitors to the fair flocked to see his optimistic, technologically advanced vision of the American city in the then-distant year 1960, with its 14-lane superhighways, radio-controlled cars, and soaring skyscrapers. This exhibit of photographs, films, and models from the University of Texas’s collection offers a look back at Bel Geddes’s futuristic design aesthetic and the many ways it has shaped our present. 
Open now.
—Emma Bryce


Courtesy Bob Mahoney/NBC

In the latest enigmatic offering from producer J. J. Abrams (Lost), modern civilization switches off in an instant, the victim of a worldwide power outage. Fifteen years later, a group of survivors become tangled in a quest to find the blackout’s cause. This grim plot rests on a kernel of scientific fact. Geomagnetic storms caused by violent solar flares can overload transformers and cause electric grids to fail; so can electromagnetic pulses, triggered by nuclear detonations miles above the ground. These events could affect an area up to the size of the United States for days or perhaps months—a terrifying prospect, but thankfully far from the global dark age of the show. (Mondays, 10pm ET).
—Fangfei Shen


Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

In this culinary history, food journalist Bee Wilson shifts the focus from the foods people ate to the technology behind their preparation, tracing how humble kitchen implements such as forks, whisks, pots, and stoves shaped our diets, our societies, and our bodies. In Wilson’s hands, even hot water becomes interesting: The Maori in New Zealand boiled vege​tables and meat in natural hot springs, while cooks in Victorian England insisted on simmering water in pots made of copper, an excellent conductor of heat. One of today’s most consequential technologies might be the automatic electric rice cooker, now ubiquitous in East Asia. By replacing the long process of soaking, washing, and closely watching the cooking rice with the flip of a switch, they have freed up untold hours for hundreds of millions of people.
—F. S.

Gravity’s Engines

by Caleb Scharf

In the late 18th century, black holes were simply an audacious thought experiment; today we know that the universe is strewn with billions, perhaps even trillions, of these time-bending objects. Although we tend to think of black holes as monstrous devourers of matter, astrophysicist Caleb Scharf uses recent astronomical observations to show that they are the universe’s most efficient generators of energy and actually sculpt the shape of every galaxy. For Scharf, whose day job is director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, even life on Earth would be impossible without the supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of the Milky Way, regulating the formation of all its stars and planets.
—Eric A. Powell

The Half-Life of Facts
by Samuel Arbesman

Facts fall apart, some famously so. Brontosaurus is not a real dinosaur species; Pluto is not a planet. When you look at them en masse, patterns emerge: Facts die, and are born, at specific, predictable rates. These rates are the subject of applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman’s engaging, insightful jaunt across the backstage of scientific knowledge. Packed with interesting tidbits—for instance, more than a third of mammals thought to have gone extinct in the last 500 years have since reappeared—the book explains how facts spread and change over time. It also explores how today’s data-soaked reality has yielded high-throughput, automated ways to produce new truths, like algorithms that discover connections between genes and disease.
—Veronique Greenwood


Courtesy 2012 Looper/Sony Pictures

It’s 2042, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is living the good life as a “looper”—a high-paid hit man for an organized crime outfit from the future that has harnessed the power of time travel to dispose of its enemies. Targets are tied up and zapped back in time from 2072; all Joe has to do is show up, pull the trigger, and collect his reward. But when one of the hits sent his way turns out to be his future self (Bruce Willis), Joe falters and lets him escape, setting off a furious manhunt complete with hover-bike chases, fistfights that challenge our understanding of causality, and lots of good old-fashioned explosions. In theaters 
tomorrow (September 28).
—Mara Grunbaum


Battling his younger self is not the most unlikely thing Bruce Willis has done on-screen. He has never let the laws of physics stand in 
the way of saving his planet, his species, or his skin.

Die Hard
Amid the usual death-
defying action, our hero uses a “futuristic” touch screen, now less impressive than the devices in everyone’s pockets. Science says: Mildly unbelievable.

The Willis character drills into an Earthbound asteroid, plants a nuclear bomb inside, and detonates it just in time to split the rock in two. Science says: Highly impractical.

12 Monkeys
Bruce travels back in time to investigate a pandemic virus, and (nonviolently) crosses paths with his younger self. Science says: Basically impossible.

The Fifth 
Willis teams up with a genetically 
engineered perfect woman to fly through space, gather mystical stones, and use them to ward off a Great Evil threatening humanity. Science says: Utterly inconceivable.
—M. G.

Next Page: Science Destinations


Statue of Liberty, New York City

When Ainissa Ramirez was growing up in Jersey City, she needed only to look east to see the Statue of Liberty on the horizon. Scaling the 354 stairs to the crown with her family or on class trips, she was always thrilled by the sheer magnitude of the monument. Now a materials scientist and a science education reformer at Yale University, Ramirez appreciates Lady Liberty as much more than an iconic tourist destination. She sees it as the ultimate metallurgical success story, a structure whose combination of materials has allowed it to withstand more than 125 years of the harshest of environments: hot summers, cold winters, and the salt spray of the surrounding sea.

The 156-ton monument stands on Liberty Island, just a 20-minute ferry ride from Manhattan or New Jersey. Unveiled in 1886, the statue was famously a gift from France to America, celebrating 100 years of independence and the Union victory in the Civil War. Its message of freedom for all citizens, particularly former slaves—reinforced by broken shackles that lie at Lady Liberty’s feet—resonated with Ramirez long before she understood the science behind its construction.

Inside the statue, it is easy to spot how thin the outwardly imposing structure actually is. “You can see the wavy contour of the robe,” Ramirez says, “and if you knock on it, you can hear a sound that tells you it’s not very thick,” much like hitting a chimeless bell. The statue’s copper skin is less than one-tenth of an inch thick, about the same as two pennies pressed together. Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the structure, knew the metal would expand with heat, so he affixed the thin copper sheets to the frame with buckle-shaped copper braces. This gives each piece of copper some freedom to move, while the iron skeleton—designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel, who used the statue’s wrought-iron frame as a proof of concept for his eponymous tower—provides structural support. The braces are clearly visible inside the statue, along a seam that runs down the center of Lady Liberty’s face.

Visitors were allowed to the top of the torch until 1916, when an explosion set off by German agents sabotaging a nearby munitions dump damaged the raised arm. More recently, members of the public have been permitted as high as the head. (The statue is closed for renovations through late this year; until then, visitors can still tour Liberty Island for an up-close view.)

Flexibility isn’t the only reason copper has proved a sound materials choice for the statue, Ramirez says. Bartholdi selected it over heavier bronze to reduce the weight of materials shipped across the Atlantic. And while salt in the air can accelerate corrosion, Ramirez says, it also adds to a protective covering on the statue called a patina, the result of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other compounds reacting with the copper. That layer formed over Lady Liberty’s first 30 years, giving her copper-colored skin its current greenish hue.

The patina hasn’t protected the statue from more than a century’s exposure to the elements on its own. Engineers have not only patched holes and plugged leaks but made significant structural upgrades as well. Saltwater hitting the statue’s iron skeleton and copper skin set up a galvanic cell, Ramirez says, an electrochemical reaction that caused the copper to corrode. Many iron components have been swapped out for stainless steel.

The statue’s persistence is, to Ramirez, something of a monument in itself. “It’s kind of amazing to me that it’s still standing,” she says. “Here you have this metal in the most corrosive environment possible—seawater—and it’s still there.”
—Kate Greene


Ainissa Ramirez, a Yale University materials scientist, invented the universal solder, an alloy now used in semiconductors that can attach metals to glass, ceramics, and diamonds.


The area around New York Harbor is crammed with touristy activities and world-famous sights, but it is also home to lesser-known destinations that will appeal to scientifically curious visitors.

The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City has interactive exhibits on alternative energy, skyscrapers, and infectious microbes. It also has the world’s largest Hoberman sphere, an 18-foot-wide collapsible metal polyhedron that contracts and expands at regular intervals.

The Museum of American Finance in Manhattan offers visitors a peek at the inner workings
and occasional malfunctionsof capitalism, with exhibits that explore and explain the intricacies of financial markets, the history of money, and the recent credit crisis.

A Tour of New York’s Harbor Heron Islands offers a sunset glimpse of the coastal birds during their summer breeding season, and egrets, cormorants, and other wildlife year-round. A 90-minute boat ride also provides views of the Manhattan skyline.
—K. G.


OCTOBER 4  World Space Week
 Celebrate the launch of Sputnik and the dawn of the space age at hundreds of events here and abroad.

OCTOBER 5  Frankenweenie 
Tim Burton updates Mary Shelley’s 
classic to tell the story of a 10-year-old boy genius who brings his beloved dog back to life.

OCTOBER 8-10  Nobel PrizesThe Oscars for geeks: Announcements of the Nobel winners in Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry.

OCTOBER 10  World Mental Health Day For 2012, the World 
Health Organization is 
promoting public awareness of depression, which affects 121 million people across the globe.

OCTOBER 18  Sun Kissed, PBS 
The true story of a couple who learn they carry a rare gene that can make exposure to sunlight fatal.

ON GOING  National Cyber 
Security Awareness MonthWith great connection 
speed comes great responsibility. Learn what you can do to help safeguard your life online.

OCTOBER 13-17  Neuroscience 2012 
30,000 brain experts descend on New Orleans 
to cogitate on everything from the ethics of smart drugs to language 
exposure in the womb.

OCTOBER 14  OCEANS ’12 Conference, Virginia Beach
 Everything you could want 
to know about “harnessing the power of the ocean.”

OCTOBER 14-20  Earth Science Week Tap into your inner geoscientist by planting a garden that measures the ozone layer or by testing the quality of your soil.

OCTOBER 18  National Science Teachers Association 
Oct. 18. Educators meet in Louisville to craft teaching tools for “Science—
Everyone, Everyday!”

OCTOBER 20  National Archaeology Day 
Your turn to dig into history. 

OCTOBER 21  Orionids 
Wake early to see one of the year’s best meteor showers at its peak.

Courtesy Chemical Heritage Society

OCTOBER 21-27  National Chemistry Week
 Nanotechnology demystified: Explore how it can create magnetic nail polish and self-cleaning clothes.

Next Page
1 of 2
Comment on this article